The Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer (ENDURANCE) robot probe is scheduled for some tough tests in the next few weeks. The goal is to help NASA eventually explore the underwater environment of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.
Researchers will start getting closer to Europa on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Lake Mendota will provide a good test of the ability of the ENDURANCE probe to create three-dimensional maps of underwater environments.
ENDURANCE is is a $2.3 million project funded by NASA's Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets Program. The probe is an underwater vehicle designed to swim untethered under ice. The probe also will collect data on conditions in those environments use sensors to characterize the biological environment.
If all goes well, tests will continue in a permanently frozen lake in Antarctica later this year. Researchers are developing and testing the technology for a possible underwater exploration mission on Europa far in the future. The probe is a follow-up to the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer, a NASA-funded project that completed a series of underwater field tests in Mexico in 2007.
Science fiction fans have several reasons to delight in this research. In the movie 2010, based on the story by Arthur C. Clarke, probes explore the frozen surface of Europa and find strong indications of life. In the film, there is a great sequence showing the exploration of Europa by remotely operated surface probe (see video).
In his 2002 story Slow Life, science fiction writer Michael Swanwick creates a fascinating picture of the exploration of liquid environments on Titan. He introduces the idea of robofish.Awkwardly, she straddled the fish, lifted it by the two side-handles, and walked it into the dark slush.
She set the fish down. "Now I'm turning it on."
The Mitsubishi turbot wriggled, as if alive. With one fluid motion, it surged forward, plunged, and was gone.
Lizzie switched over to the fishcam.
Black liquid flashed past the turbot's infrared eyes. Straight away from the shore it swam, seeing nothing but flecks of paraffin, ice, and other suspended particulates as they loomed up before it and were swept away in the violence of its wake. A hundred meters out, it bounced a pulse of radar off the sea floor, then dove, seeking the depths...